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How to grow cooperation on your farm

Farm Progress A sunset over a cornfield
GETTING ALONG: Even though your farm’s owners and employees are adults, they will likely imitate the behavior of their leaders.
Legal Matters: Disagreements do not have to be destructive.

Farm attorneys and consultants have heard numerous times from their farm business owners: “Why can’t we just all get along?” Why do farm owners, family members and employees choose to fight when such behavior hurts everyone and the farm? To help understand why people act like this, in the 1950s, researchers invented a game called Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Prisoner’s Dilemma is used to analyze how people choose whether to cooperate or not to cooperate. The game works like this:

Prisoner A and Prisoner B are charged with a crime and detained separately, and each has the chance to give a confession. Neither prisoner knows what the other will choose to do. There are several possible outcomes:

• If only one prisoner confesses, the confessor is set free, and the nonconfessor serves a three-year sentence.

• If neither prisoner confesses, both prisoners serve a one-year sentence.

• If both prisoners confess, both prisoners serve a two-year sentence.

In the 1980s, Robert Axelrod, a political scientist, set up series of tournaments using repeated games of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Axelrod used the tournaments to try to find out what strategy “won” at the repeated playing of the game. He found that the strategy of tit-for-tat did the best. A player who used the tit-for-tat strategy would cooperate on the first move and then reciprocate whatever the player did on the previous move. If the other player also cooperated on the first move, the tit-for-tat player would continue cooperating until the other player defected. If the other player defected, the tit-for-tat player would also defect, but would switch back to cooperating if the other player started cooperating again.

Good relationship leaders

What does this tell us about farm business planning and the nature of our relationships with our fellow farm family members, partners and employees? To be successful in these relationships, you should do the following:

Be nice. Good relationship leaders never go on the offensive. They avoid unnecessary conflict by cooperating so long as others do as well.

Be disciplinary. Good relationship leaders fight back in the face of bad behavior by others. They call people to the carpet when people are not acting right. They step in and make the message clear that bad behavior will not be tolerated in any form. They demand accountability from others.

Be forgiving. Good relationship leaders forgive and forget always, and encourage others to do so as well. Unforgiveness can turn into hatred and resentment. People who choose not to forgive someone are often prisoners of their own stress and anger. Unforgiveness is simply destructive and toxic for people who wish to have a continued relationship with one another.

Be clear. Finally, good relationship leaders are clear about what is expected and practice what they preach. Even though your farm’s co-owners and employees are adults, they will likely imitate the behavior of their leaders.

Disagreements on the farm are inevitable. However, such disagreements do not have to be destructive. In fact, when people who behave and work differently come together to solve problems productively, disagreements can actually help create stronger teams.

Some of you reading this article may ask what this has to do with law and farming. Unfortunately, farm business planning often fails to deal adequately with the human issues that ultimately lead to unresolved conflicts. Successful farms have healthy human dynamics. The people you would most want to farm with are the people who default to being kind and generous, but also hold others accountable if needed.

Headshot of Troy SchneiderSchneider is a partner in the agricultural law firm of Twohig, Rietbrock, Schneider and Halbach. Call him at 920-849-4999.

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